There are many ways to describe what I saw tonight. One of them is that there was excessive moisture in the air, causing the solar photons bouncing off of the moon’s surface to refract in interesting patterns, all of which can be described mathematically. But a description like this misses something. Though it contains a lot of Truth, there is not much in the way of meaning or inspiration. Very little feeling or intensity is evoked in the reader who hears this description.
On the other hand, I could say that I saw the moon, radiant in the same way that pregnant women are radiant, its round belly shining pure, warm light down upon me like an overpouring of love from the mother. This sentence probably contains less Truth than the previous description. But I would say it has more meaning. Though I hardly claim to be a poet, this description has a chance at evoking some sort of feeling in the reader. It is more memorable, it’s not just a recipe of reality.
Why do I talk about this? Tonight I saw a really amazing movie, Tim Burton’s
Big Fish. This distinction between Truth and Meaning is the central theme of the story. In the movie, Billy Crudup plays Will Bloom, son of Ed Bloom played by Albert Finney (and by Ewan MacGregor in flashbacks). Ed Bloom is storyteller to the extreme; full of charm, a big smile, and a teller of tall tales. As the movie says repeatedly, “he’s nothing if not a social man.” And in the movie, he’s dying.
Will Bloom, on the other hand, is a reporter. He is interested in facts, and grew tired of his father’s tall tales. He goes to visit his father and tells him, basically, I don’t know you, I just know your amusing little lies. When Will was still a child, he discovered that some of his father’s tales were impossible, and lost all trust in his dad.
This is the central conflict in the story. Fact vs. story. Teller of tales vs. speaker of Truth. It’s a great movie; in the end, it is clear that we are our stories, no matter how we choose to tell them.
It made me cry on a couple of levels. One of them is that my grandfather is currently in the hospital, perhaps for the last time. He’s 93 years old and physically very weak; he’s also undergoing radiation treatment for skin cancer. A few days ago he had basically a heart attack; he has, in addition to his skin cancer, congestive heart failure and pulmonary edema. When (or if) he is released from the hospital, it is quite likely he will go on to Hospice.
I will always remember my grandfather in stories. One of my favorites: as a child, we used to “go to the lake” where my grandparents had a cottage. There was decent fishing at Boone Lake, actually; I remember fishing for bluegill and largemouth bass primarily, though there were also crappie to be found. Anyway, once I managed to get my fishing line hopelessly tangled into a large ball of monofilament plastic. I did this often; usually my father would untangle the line for me. Well at this moment, dad wasn’t around, he must have been off fishing or something. But Grandpa was there, and he went to untangle the line for me. I was in an “annoying kid moment”; I remember saying over and over to my grandfather: “that’s not how daddy does it.” Grandpa endured this for a few minutes and finally stopped, turned and looked at me half-glaring and half-smiling with his pipe clenched between his teeth, and said four words that utterly shut me up. “Who taught your father?”
In Big Fish, Will Bloom finally realizes that though his father exaggerated some of the details of his stories for effect, the essence of the stories was usually accurate. The Chinese Singing Twins weren’t actually siamese twins; the giant wasn’t 20 feet tall but 7 and a half. More importantly, Will Bloom realizes that our stories are our lives, and that we can only relate to other people through the stories.
It makes me wish I had listened to more of my grandfather’s stories.